Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also directs the Berkely Social Interaction Lab. He has researched awe for nearly 20 years.
Below, Dacher shares 5 key insights from his new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Listen to the audio version—read by Dacher himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The awe checklist.
Awe is considered by many to be a basic state of mind, yet it is surprisingly hard to define. It is as the great philosopher William James said, “ineffable.” It’s hard to put to words, but science reveals an awe checklist of sorts.
You know you’re feeling awe when experiencing particular qualities, such as appreciating something as vast and mysterious. In turn, your sense of self will be small—which is actually the deactivation of the default mode network (DMN), which is where the ego resides in the brain. You will feel humble and quiet. You may vocalize a universal sound of awe: Whoa. And then your body gets into the act, what Walt Whitman called the body of the soul. You may tear up, get the goosebumps, or the tingles that people now call ASMR, and your heart may feel warm (which is the activation of the vagus nerve). Awe is identifiable through a checklist of body symptoms.
2. Awe is good for you.
It’s hard to find something that is better for your body and mind than experiencing a bit of awe. Studies where people look up into the trees or take in vast views or think about somebody who is morally inspiring find that brief experiences of awe calm the stress response and make a person feel more connected and less lonely. Awe has been seen to reduce depression, reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans, and is also good for cardiovascular health and the immune system.
“Awe is identifiable through a checklist of body symptoms.”
Awe is good for you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of a big awe experience on a cold day out on a commons in Massachusetts, there is nothing that nature (in this case awe) cannot repair.
3. Everyday awe.
If you open your eyes, embrace mystery, move into questions, be unscheduled, wander and wonder, you will find everyday awe. We have done a kind of research called Daily Diary research in China, Japan, Spain, and the United States. Every night for two weeks, we asked people, “Did you feel an experience of awe?” On average, people in these countries felt awe two to three times a week.
What was striking in this research were the stories people told about being awe-struck by the intelligence of somebody in a chemistry class, or a leaf falling from a tree that reminded somebody of the passage of time, or music that was playing in a town square. If we open our eyes, there are wonders of everyday awe all around us.
4. The eight wonders of life.
We gathered stories of awe from 26 countries, from communities of every kind of religion, economic development, political structure, and sense of self. They wrote about what they felt was vast and mysterious. It took a couple years to translate these stories, and then classify them as a means of answering the question, where do you find awe? This is how we identified the eight wonders of life.
You find awe in moral beauty, such as people’s kindness, courage, and ability to overcome obstacles. You find awe in nature, and in collective movement. Emil Durkheim, the great sociologist, felt that collective, synchronized movement was the core of religion because it activates awe. People find awe when they dance, cheer for sports teams, or perform rituals in religious ceremonies.
Music is a long-standing source of awe. We’ve been making music for eighty to a hundred thousand years: our chanting, singing, electric guitars, symphonies, and lullabies all bring awe. One person I interviewed called the awe felt from music a cashmere blanket of sound.
“If we open our eyes, there are wonders of everyday awe all around us.”
Visual design is another wonder of life. This awe can come from great paintings, Berlin Street art, or even a child’s psychedelic finger painting.
The sixth wonder is spirituality. The great insights of the Buddha, Arjun in Hinduism, St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or indigenous traditions offer the ecstatic awe of mystical experience.
A rather surprising wonder of life is big ideas. We had a student from Japan in a natural history museum feeling absolutely astounded, like Ralph Waldo Emerson was at the evolution of life, or how Charles Darwin felt when he figured out natural selection through his own awe experiences.
Finally, our eighth wonder of life is the beginning of life and its end. Watching people come into the world and then watching people go is a remarkable source of awe.
5. Awe is transformative.
Awe will change your life. I love asking people to tell me about a time when music or a concert changed their life, where it really spoke to them, or revealed something fundamental about who they are and their purpose. People have volunteered stories of seeing Peter Gabriel, New Kids On The Block, or a hip hop show, and they start tearing up and almost quivering at the sense of epiphany, discovery, and transformation which that music had brought them.
I believe that the purpose of awe is to reveal the big systems of life: the ecosystems, social systems, cultural meaning systems, moral systems, biological systems, solar systems. Feeling awe reveals the deep structure of the world, and then we start to transform. We transform in our sense of self and our understanding of the world. We transform in our sense of mystery about life. We become, as Jane Goodall said, amazed at things outside of ourselves.
“Life is about one mystery after another, and awe leads us on that journey.”
I wrote this book when I was in search of transformation. I had watched my brother Rolf succumb to colon cancer, which was brutal and horrifying. In my grief, I felt adrift, without a purpose, just waking up, stressed out, depressed, anxious, and very confused. A lot of people today feel like this. Since the pandemic, depression and anxiety have risen 30 percent.
I felt no awe, but I went in search of it. I approached mystery, following things I had questions about, seeking the unknown, wandering, and letting myself wonder. I also used the eight wonders of life as a roadmap. Moral beauty, nature, collective effervescence, music, visual design, spirituality, big ideas, and really thinking about the beginning and end of life.
I interviewed people in prisons, listened to music that I didn’t understand, did spiritual retreats, hiked a variety of mountain ranges, attended dance performances and sporting events. I spoke to ministers and contemplative scholars in indigenous traditions, just asking about awe. The pursuit of awe transformed my life. It didn’t teach me the final answers to the beginning and end of life or why my brother passed, but it taught me what Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching (the great book that I was lucky enough for my dad to give me) that wonder into wonder and life unfolds; life is about one mystery after another, and awe leads us on that journey.
To listen to the audio version read by author Dacher Keltner, download the Next Big Idea App today: